The Kondh people of southern Odisha, India are small subsistence farmers, who have been living off the land and surrounding forests for millennia. Their lives have been deeply intertwined with their farms and forests, which are a source of an abundance of diverse cultivated and wild foods, medicinal plants, fuel, and livelihoods.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to young Kondh farmer Adi Kumbruka from the village of Konduguda in southern Odisha. Adi and his family farm on a total of 2.7 acres of land, which includes 2 acres of uphill land. He discussed with Food Tank the traditional Kondh way of living and farming, and the significance of the mixed-crop practice through which farmers can cultivate a variety of millets, lentils, pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables together in one piece of land.
Food Tank (FT): Can you describe a typical day on your farm?
Adi Kumbruka (AK): Farming is very much a part of our lives. Life on the farm varies depending on the season. For example, in the rainy season in June and July, we sow seeds and transplant seedlings. During this time, my day begins at 5:00am or 6:00am in the morning, and I work till 12:30pm to 1:00pm when someone from home brings food for lunch. I take a break, eat with the family, and continue working till 5:00pm to 6:00pm.
The months of June to August are very demanding, while the time from September to October is relatively leisurely. Seeds are sown by then, so we keep a watch to make sure there are no animals, and remove unwanted weeds (some weeds are used as edible greens). Once I am back home from a day of being on the field, it’s time to be with the family and with community members. We share what we did the whole day, sometimes spending time singing and dancing together.
November to January is a very happy time. It’s when harvesting begins, and we bring food home for family and fodder for livestock. From February to May, since we live in a dry area and don’t have irrigation facilities, we don’t spend time on the farm, but mostly visit the forest collecting uncultivated foods. When I go to the forest, children of the village also accompany me, and that is how the next generation learns.
FT: Can you tell us about the mixed-cropping practice that Kondh farmers have traditionally used in farming? What are the benefits and challenges associated with it?
AK: I have seen my parents and elders in my village as I grew up growing many varieties of crops. In those days, my parents never used to buy anything from the market, other than salt and kerosene oil to light the lamp. So I grew up in an environment where most of our household needs were met by agricultural fields and forests. I grew up with an understanding that mixed-cropping is what I need for my family. In the last five to seven years, when the rain cycle has been erratic, I have been observing that not only my farm, but other farms as well—those who practice mixed-cropping—have better yields than monocrop farms. For example, last year we had a very bad drought, and for two years before last, we had floods. Yet, I have harvested an adequate amount of food for my family.
There is also a practice in our village of offering what we grow and collect to our deity in our festivals and rituals. Our deity doesn’t accept anything bought from the market. And we relate with our deity; we believe she takes care of us. This is another reason for practicing mixed-crop farming.
The mixed-crop practice gives us a variety of foods—cereals, pulses, spices. And that helps us get a diversified diet at home. I’ve also seen that it has helped me develop sufficient resilience to be able to deal with any external crisis without depending on loans from outside. As Kondh community members, self-dignity is very dear to us. So we would like to do everything to ensure that we don’t have to beg. Mixed-crop farming also helps us to maintain our communitarian ethos. This is because it requires each of us to consult each other on knowledge, and share our seeds and labor. So in a way, this system of growing food requires us to be together.
One challenge associated with mixed-cropping is that since there is aggressive campaigning on the financial gains of monocropping, at times, the youth get distracted. Mainstream agriculture has been focusing on the monocrop of rice. There is no support system to help farmers get access to indigenous seed varieties of crops. And there has been pressure on such lands to get converted for industrial plantations. So the farmers practicing mixed-cropping are undergoing a threat of losing their food-growing land. The other threat is of losing forest land. Many of my villagers grow their crops on forest land, and this has been a practice for generations. When there is pressure on us to leave our forest, our knowledge on mixed-cropping gets lost, which, according to me, is an irreparable damage.
FT: You farm organically, without any pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Why do you choose organic farming, and what do you think prevents other farmers in your area from adopting organic practices?
AK: We have grown up hearing different stories, and attending different rituals and festivals, which have developed a relationship between us and the land. We believe the land is a part of us. Our ancestors are there in that land. My children and I will also go into that land. So how can I give poison to a part of my life? It’s just not possible to use chemicals and pesticides on our land. The land is our mother; as children, we cannot poison our mother. I have seen many farmers who have borrowed loans or spent money to buy pesticides and suffered miserably. The mixed-cropping farmers don’t use pesticides. It is the paddy-growing farmers that do because there is a lot of free distribution as part of the aggressive campaign on the advantages of using synthetic chemicals and pesticides.
FT: What do you believe is the biggest challenge that farmers in your region are facing today?
AK: One big challenge is that we are losing our land, forests, and seeds. Schools don’t teach children how to grow food, or that agriculture is a dignified vocation. I also hear there have been a lot of farmer suicides in different parts of the country, which makes me feel deeply sad and worried. I hope and pray that our farmers return to mother Earth and start practicing a self-reliant agriculture.
FT: What is your favorite time of year when it comes to your farming responsibilities, and why?
AK: When I harvest my crops, it’s a happy time because we get food for parents, children, and animals. The entire village community, children, women, and elders are all happy; there is happiness all around. The entire village, for a few weeks, goes into celebration.
Adi’s answers for this interview have been translated from Odisha’s local language Odia to English by Debjeet Sarangi, the founder of Odisha-based organization Living Farms. Living Farms works with Kondh farmers like Adi to realize food sovereignty in the region.